The Lost King

Based on finding Richard III's remains, this drama about literally unearthing history tells a fascinating true tale, but also boils its story down to a formula.
Sarah Ward
Published on December 19, 2022


When King Richard III was killed in battle in the 15th century, did anyone wonder about a public holiday? Given the era and its working conditions, likely not. There's also the hardly minor fact that the monarch was slain by the forces of Henry Tudor, who promptly became England's ruler, so downing tools for a day of mourning probably wasn't a priority. The world has a frame of reference for grieving a British sovereign, though, and recently. When Queen Elizabeth II died in September 2022, pomp and ceremony reigned supreme. Dramatising the discovery of Richard III's remains, The Lost King wasn't made with the queen's passing in mind. Actually, it world-premiered a day afterwards. But the Stephen Frears (Victoria & Abdul)-directed, Steve Coogan- and Jeff Pope (Philomena)-scripted drama benefits from audiences knowing what's done now when whoever wears the crown is farewelled.

The Lost King isn't about chasing a parade, pageantry, and a day off work for the masses in Britain and further afield. Charting the true tale of Richard III's location and exhumation 527 years after he breathed his last breath, it follows a quest for recognition and respect. When the film opens, Philippa Langley (Sally Hawkins, The Phantom of the Open) wants it for herself, as a woman over 40 overlooked for a promotion at work in favour of a younger, less-experienced colleague — and as someone with a medical condition, myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome, who's too easily dismissed due to her health. She's also newly separated from her husband John (Coogan, This Time with Alan Partridge), adding to her unappreciated feelings. It's no wonder that Richard III's plight catches her interest thanks to a production of Shakespeare's Richard III, aka one of the reasons that the king was long seen as a hunchbacked villain. 

Swiftly an amateur historian, Philippa objects to the characterisation of the last Plantagenet sovereign as monstrous, a usurper and a murderer, and the connection between this dim standing in the annals of history and being a person with a purported disability. As she researches via piles of books, zoom chats and the Richard III Society, aka the Ricardians, she questions what's fact and fiction — not just due to Shakespeare, but also Tudor propaganda from five centuries earlier. Arguing the case, including with dismissive academics, is one thing; however, taking on the search to find the monarch's long-lost skeleton is another. It's a two birds, one stone situation in The Lost King's neat screenplay: restore the denigrated ruler's reputation and put his remnants to rest, and show Philippa's own naysayers — or even just herself — what she can achieve. Yes, she follows a hunch. Yes, there's an obligatory gag about it

British cinema loves an everyperson taking on the establishment, and underdogs in general. The past two years have also delivered The Dig and The Duke, after all. The first chronicled another extraordinary find by someone not deemed an expert, and the second delighted in its working-class protagonist's antics with Goya's Portrait of the Duke of Wellington — and, in a case of tonal seesawing, The Lost King recalls both. There's clearly a fascinating IRL story behind this flick, which ripples with intrigue whether or not you already know the details (or you've merely seen the trailer, which spells everything out). There's also a tussle between positioning the film as a bit of a caper and something more serious. Having Philippa see Richard III (Harry Lloyd, Brave New World) — being haunted by the play's version of him and talking to him, in fact — wavers between the two moods depending on the scene.

Buried within The Lost King is a sense that Frears, Coogan and Pope — who all collaborated on Philomena, too — aren't always sure how they want the movie to land with audiences. They're patently keen for it to inspire rousing support for everyone who's ever been downplayed, cast aside or ignored, including for their gender and health. They're eager for the same emotions to spark up for anyone ever saddled with a pre-judged narrative about themselves that isn't accurate, as both Richard III and Philippa are, as well. And yet, there's also an air of not quite trusting that the true tale being relayed innately evokes those responses. It does, so everything feels simplified and smoothed out here, given too many quirks and rendered a tad cartoonish. Also noticeable: using the contemptuous academics as easy adversaries, perhaps as conveniently as Shakespeare is said to have demonised Richard III.

Getting angry at seeing Philippa pushed aside and underestimated again and again is easy, but so is spotting how The Lost King itself is constructing its story. Thankfully, Frears does trust in Hawkins, the feature's MVP alongside its real-life details (and an on-screen treasure in everything from Happy-Go-Lucky and Submarine to The Shape of Water and the Paddington movies). The two-time Oscar-nominee serves up a winning, earnest and relatable blend of vulnerability, warmth, curiosity and determination, plus the kind of persistence that arises when someone has spent too long being forced to fight just to be seen, let alone valued. Indeed, even when The Lost King is at its slickest and most straightforward — or when it inexplicably focuses on whether John will get a new car — she's its anchor and heart. 

With Philomena in 2013, The Lost King's key creative trio also unearthed the past. As they do now, they similarly told of addressing secrets and redressing wrongs. And, they centred on a mature woman, enlisted a phenomenal leading lady to play the part, gave Coogan a prime role and set it all to an emphatic Alexandre Desplat (Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio) score. There's no doubting why their latest collaboration has a formulaic feel to it, then, despite the intriguing slice of history it brings to the screen. No one needs the type of intuition that guided Philippa to the Adult Social Services department's car park in Leicester, to a space marked 'R' for reserved, to spy those parallels. No one needs as much force and fantasy as The Lost King deploys, either, to understand that this is a rare and meaningful tale that's told with all the subtlety of the world's latest royal goodbye — so, very little. Richard III and Queen Elizabeth II's deaths mightn't have much in common but, via this still engaging-enough film, they do share that.


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